I first heard of Reeva Steenkamp’s death in a movie theater. An elderly man seated behind me was talking to his wife. “Guy kills his girlfriend. In the bathroom. He shot her through the door. Four times.”
The man’s voice was what caught my attention, that particular New York lilt that can convey disgust and confusion in equal parts. I knew he was discussing current news, not a plotline, not a new twist to our upcoming feature, Anna Karenina.
“Why,” he said, “would anyone do that?”
“Must’ve been a fight,” his wife said matter-of-factly.
Days later, I read about Oscar Pistorius’s arrest in the New York Times. Like many, I felt he was guilty, very guilty, from the moment I began reading about it. Under what circumstances would you lock the bathroom door at your boyfriend’s house? And bring your cell phone?
And since when do intruders lock themselves in bathrooms? Had Pistorius never experienced a person in his home using the bathroom at night?
Or had he almost shot them all?
For more than a year afterward, whenever I was in an airport or a train station or waiting for a friend at a bar, I’d find myself on my phone searching. Was there new evidence? When was the trial to begin? Did other people think he was guilty? When tabloids insisted he had a new nineteen-year-old girlfriend, I became incensed.
I read about the trial itself every night when I got home from work. I watched clips. Clips of Pistorius crying. Clips of the judge talking to Pistorius about his crying. Clips of Pistorius saying, “I don’t remember.” Clips of the “Pit Bull” persecutor growing shrill.
I was mildly obsessed. Okay, quite obsessed. And when you’re quite obsessed you have to ask yourself: why in the world am I so obsessed?
Is it powerlessness? Do I want to see something corrected or seeming fixed, even though it can’t be?
Or am I a sick voyeur?
Or am I dead set on a certain outcome? Am I perhaps…prejudiced? Prejudiced against men who kill women, under any circumstances? Or, in light of Pistorius’s reapperance in court this summer, was I right all along?
When I was 21, a childhood friend of mine was murdered by a neighbor. He left her in her apartment, bleeding to death and alone, and moved her car to the back of her brick building so that no one would suspect she was home.
The car detail is much like the locked bathroom door; it offers a certain amount of cinema. You can see the car moving from the front of a brick building to the back of a brick building. A benign image, yet it has a very sinister connotation.
Visualizations are for anyone who dares, but visceral sensations, the hook and tear of it, are usually reserved for a certain some.
The day I was informed of my friend’s murder, I was working in a bar that had an arcade floor. Sinking squeals, bleeping bullets, the squawk of points thundered about as a friend said to me, “I have something to tell you. But you can’t work and hear it.”
In the end, the person who killed my friend was arrested, tried, and sentenced to life in prison. Justice was served, to the extent that it can be.
Still, whenever I read of such murders, be it Reeva Steenkamp or Natalee Holloway or Imette St. Guillen, I get a real bee in my bonnet. A buzzing thundering thing. Or is it arcade fire?
During the OJ Simpson trial, conversely, I do not remember paying so much attention. Nicole Brown was murdered in June of 1994 and my friend was killed the following summer. At the time, Simpson’s trial was already underway and concluded in October of 1995. Despite all the fanfare and hype, I know only a few details about the crime itself or OJ Simpson’s defense.
There may be a very obvious psychological reason for this, but I do suspect one other factor: in ’94 and ’95 I did not have continuous access to the internet. For the most part of the 90s I spent very little time online. Reeva Steenkamp, Imette St. Guillen, and Natalee Holloway all died in the past ten to twelve years, during the decade in which I started to read online news just as much, if not more, than literature.
Many of the headlines for Oscar Pistorius’s initial verdict read “Found Not Guilty of Murder.” In certain instances, the not was italicized or capitalized for emphasis.
That particular morning, in my Williamsburg kitchen, I clicked on one of those headlines, read a very summarized version of the Pretoria verdict, and felt so unmoored I had to get out of my seat.
I consider it a sign of genius when a novelist can upset me so much that I stand up, pace, or take a long walk. But on the internet just about anyone can do it, given the right material and the right reader.
Even when perusing sophisticated quality coverage, what is read is shaped by what the reader wants. Alternate viewpoints are skimmed. The hungry eye waits for agreement — or, in some cases, blatant antagonism.
The fact that Pistorius’s judge, Thokozile Masipa, fell under fire is not surprising. You have to be an avid clip watcher to listen to her multi-hour delivery of why the prosecution’s evidence could not support finding Pistorius guilty of murder: the incongruous testimonies, the less-than-convincing use of texts as evidence, the disturbed crime scene.
And really who can question the impartiality of a 68-year-old black judge who’s lived half her life under apartheid? Who among us has a stronger reason to be unprejudiced and fair?
Still, I continued to agree with the woman I overheard in the movie theater: “There must’ve been a fight.” I’ve never believed Pistorius’s claim that he thought Steenkamp was an intruder.
But I can, I can, believe that in an argument, in a fit of rage, Pistorius might’ve fired at the doorknob, not thinking of what it could do.
Regardless, as I have already established, I am a terrible judge. Many of us are when it comes to a certain type of dynamic — a man killing a woman, a white person killing a black person, a Muslim killing anyone. And much of the time whoever we believe to be guilty often is, yet what disturbs me is how deeply I want someone to pay.
Long ago when I finished reading Anna Karenina, someone asked me who I blamed for Anna’s painful end. Society, Vronsky, or Anna?
Perhaps there’s something inherently more impartial about fictional worlds — and distant centuries — but I could coolly say, I blamed Anna the least, Vronsky a bit, and society the very most.